It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.
In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.
I have never been so terrified.
My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.
I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.
The Internet still scares the crap out of me.
A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as "a waste of time" and "a huge disappointment."
The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.
I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.
I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.
And that was the most disturbing part about it.
We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.
The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.
One says, “Your posts are too depressing.” Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.” One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.” Another says, “You’ve become too precious.” One says, “You talk about God too much.” Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”
I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)
My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:
“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”
Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do---the actual act of writing---turns out to be the best part.”
Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.
“Look what I made today, momma!”
He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.
“I made it for you!” he said proudly.
I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.
Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.
How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?
I suppose it is no different than motherhood.
I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.
He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.
I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.
It’s still tempting, though.
We’re so cozy here.
Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.
So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it's getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.
The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It's not enough.
And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”
You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.
How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?
This isn’t good enough, God. This won’t work, God.
Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.
It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.
This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.
This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.
I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.
I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.
I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I'm praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”
Because we did. We made this for you.
Onward and upward.